“You are now in the presence of the king!”
John Wick: Chapter 4 continues its unlikely reign as the franchise to beat in terms of both quality and substance when it comes to modern action cinema. A brutal ballet of bullets, fists, and anything that isn’t bolted down (sometimes even things that are), stunt coordinator turned filmmaker Chad Stahelski’s John Wick franchise has been disarmingly excellent throughout its run, and this fourth Keanu Reeves led instalment is no exception. John Wick: Chapter 4 delivers on already high expectations by bettering the film that came before it in the series and expanding the franchise’s unique and expansive universe of underground wetworkers to pleasingly rich heights.
With the weight of the all powerful High Table bearing down on him – now led by a ludicrously wealthy young go-getter known as The Marquis (Bill Skarsgård), who guarantees Wick’s death – John remains on the run and virtually friendless in his quest for both vengeance and freedom. Anyone that gets close to John becomes marked for death, an outcome that seems more and more likely thanks to the increasing price put upon his head. John is alerted to a loophole in the “old ways” of the High Table that could either set him free or see him die trying, provided that Wick lives long enough to see those plans come to fruition.
In some ways, John Wick: Chapter 4 is like watching a Fast and the Furious movie, only vastly preferable to the lumbering behemoths those once fun films have become lately. Much like the Fast and the Furious films, the John Wick franchise has grown further and further away from what started everything in the first place. The Vin Diesel backed series started with a bunch of low level crooks boosting car stereos before eventually growing into international spy capers that sent some of its characters into space. John Wick began life as a relatable sort of revenge thriller where an assassin and widower who got out of the game for love is brought back into the fold because a bunch of heartless goons killed his new puppy and stole his car. Now, John Wick: Chapter 4 is an all out, globetrotting blockbuster that has to similarly outdo everything that came before it.
And if that were the only goal for Stahelski, John Wick: Chapter 4 accomplishes the task at hand and then some. But even though chief franchise scribe Derek Kolstad has handed over writing duties to Shay Hatten (who also worked on the third film) and Michael Finch (Predators), John Wick: Chapter 4 maintains the series’ playful approach to setting and character. There are far more interesting locations and settings than every before, and even more choice roles for action cinema veterans and character actors alike to sink their teeth into. It’s easy to poke holes into some of the logic at play in John Wick: Chapter 4, but it’s presented in such an immaculate and sumptuous package that it never fails to deliver brutal delights.
Familiar franchise faces Laurence Fishburne, Ian McShane, and the late Lance Reddick are welcome returns, and Reeves’ snappily attired and usually bloodied Wick is even wearier and more taciturn than he was in previous films (and honestly, with all he’s been through, who would blame him?). But there are also plenty of new faces in addition to the gleefully malevolent Skarsgård to further flesh out the mythology of this world filled with honourable killers, blood oaths, and rules of civility amongst criminals. Hiroyuki Sanada and Rina Sawayama bring a lot of emotion to their parts as the father and daughter proprietors of the Osaka outpost of the Continental hotel chain. Canadian actor Shamier Anderson gives one of the more effectively low key performances as an accomplished hitman with a loyal pooch and a retirement plan of his own who refuses to kill John until the price reaches an astronomical height. Clancy Brown is a welcome sight in a small, but pivotal role as a messenger from the High Table, and underrated action star Scott Adkins is unrecognizable as a ghastly looking, gambling obsessed mafia type. But the greatest addition here is Donnie Yen, who gets the best English speaking role of his career as a blind assassin forced out of retirement by The Marquis to take John out once and for all.
Watching such recognizable faces turning in such great performances in a film this intensely packed full of action only adds to the elegantly composed visual aesthetics of Stahelski’s films. The John Wick franchise has become action cinema for filmgoers who prefer the sleek, philosophical works of Michael Mann to the abrasive, blunt force cinema of Michael Bay; cinephiles would would rather get high and go on a tear through a museum rather than getting blitzed on beers at a football game. (Or it could just appeal to anyone who likes great movies, period. I’m not going to judge.) John Wick: Chapter 4, like the great samurai pictures of old, handles the business of taking a life as if it were art.
The prevalence of neon, glass, and mirrors that marked the previous films hasn’t gone anywhere, but the canvas Stahelski has to work with has expanded exponentially. From horseback chases through the desert, to rain soaked nightclubs, to an absolutely blistering final hour set in Paris, John Wick: Chapter 4 pushes the visual aesthetics of action cinema to their absolute limits, doing so with fluid, graceful camerawork and less frantic editing than many of its ilk. John Wick: Chapter 4 is a lot, and it’s patently ridiculous (how do those hundreds of obvious bystanders not think anything about what’s unfolding around them?!?), but in Stahelski’s hands, things remain quality over quantity, and it all works remarkably well.
At nearly three hours in length, John Wick: Chapter 4 does suffer from a bit of bloat, mostly in the form of scenes where characters explain things the audience had already been told in a previous sequence, but that’s a minor quibble when everything else is so much fun. John Wick: Chapter 4 also marks a return to some of the more deeply felt emotional beats that provided the bedrock of the first film, but were pushed deeper into the background for the second and third instalments, giving this entry the pleasing feeling of a franchise that is coming full circle instead of going off on a new tangent. With spin-offs already in the works, the accuracy of that statement could still be up for debate, but taken on its own terms, John Wick: Chapter 4 is an epic showdown that fans of genre cinema won’t want to miss.
John Wick: Chapter 4 opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, March 24, 2023.
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